Merry Christmas to all readers of Platform 10. We thought that this week would be a good week to run through the top fives of the year – Fiona and Nick will be throwing their top fives into the mix over the next few days, but I thought that I would kick off today with the top five political books of the year.
We are very lucky in British politics to have classy biographers, great contemporary historians and some wonderful journalists, who often turn their hands towards writing must read books. I have restricted the list below to books about British politics. Feel free to use the comments section to make your own suggestions.
1. Supermac – The Life of Harold Macmillan by D.R. Thorpe
For years, Harold Macmillan was ignored by modern Tories and seen as a forgotten Prime Minister. His brand of One Nation Toryism didn’t appeal to a generation of neo-liberal right wingers who owed more to the liberal politics of Gladstone, Herbert Spencer and Hayek than to the Tory ideas of Disraeli, Oakeshott and Macmillan. Thankfully, the Tory Party has now rediscovered the progressive pragmatism that has made the Party such a successful political party. Harold Macmillan has emerged from the changed political and philosophical environment with a greatly enhanced reputation – now regarded as a great Prime Minister. In D.R. Thorpe he has found a great biographer.
Thorpe clearly has great affection for Macmillan and has produced a biography that is immensely readable and really captures the spirit and the essence of the man. From his much mythologised background as a crofter’s Grandson (as well as a Duke’s son in law) through his early years as a maverick Tory radical – often going out of his way to offend Baldwin’s “hard faced men who look like they have done very well out of the war” – setting out radical new ideas to tackle the scourge of unemployment in areas such as the Stockton constituency he represented – and consistently and passionately opposing appeasement, Thorpe sets out nicely how Macmillan’s politics were formed by the seismic events of the 1930s. His description of the post war events that led to Butler and Macmillan modernising and reshaping the Tory Party and leading to 13 years of unbroken Tory rule, with ever increasing majorities, is vivid and insightful as is the description of Macmillan’s time in the Cabinet and the events that led from Suez to the Macmillan replacing Eden as Prime Minister.
Thorpe is fair and objective about Macmillan’s radical Premiership. His time in Number 10 was one characterised by high growth, low inflation, low unemployment, social harmony and social justice. He concludes that Macmillan had “style, vision, breadth of view and compassion.” The Sunday Times called this book a “superb biographical achievement” and they were right. Thorpe understands politics, keeps up the narrative against the backdrop of immense historical events, whilst never losing touch with the importance of Macmillan’s troubled personal life in the making of the man and the making of the politician. This biography should be read as a splendid biography of a first rate Prime Minister. It should also be used as a guide for a successful, radical and progressive Tory future.
2. The New Machiavelli – How To Wield Power In The Modern World by Jonathan Powell
It is often said that the powers behind the throne have as interesting a story to tell as the wielders of power themselves. Nowhere is this more the case than with Jonathan Powell and this magisterial part biography, part attempt to translate the teachings of Machiavelli to the workings of modern Government and politics. A thread running through the book is a staunch loyalty to Tony Blair and Blairism and an equally trenchant savaging of Gordon Brown’s interference and unsuitability for the task of modern leadership. Powell also defends the often misunderstood writings of Machiavelli and counsels the reader to look beyond ‘The Prince’ towards some of his lesser known writings.
This book works as one of the ultimate insider accounts to the New Labour years – Powell was almost always at Blair’s side, sharing his successes and experiencing the same frustrations. It also works on an intellectual level – musing about the pressures on politicians and leaders in a fast paced media driven world. A must read for anybody with an interest in modern British politics.
3. Red Tory by Philip Blond
Philip Blond has been a regular on our television screens since his Prospect article hit the newsstands a few years ago and his Respublica think-tank, the launch of which I reviewed very favourably, has proven to be a great success. The publication of Red Tory put plenty of flesh on the bone. The book includes a Tory critique of Thatcherism and a plea for the reinvigoration of a more radical, transformative type of Conservatism – not purely rooted in economically liberal values. Blond’s call for a reinvigoration of civil society (echoing similar calls from the likes of David Marquand and John Gray) and the capitalisation of the poor represent some of the most exciting ideas to be put into the Tory bloodstream for decades. Winning the battle of ideas is a crucial part of winning the overall political battle and Philip Blond’s ideas, as expressed in Red Tory represent the kind of bold and radical ideas that will help Tories win this battle in the coming years.
4. The End Of The Party by Andrew Rawnsley
Servants of the People was one of the must-read contemporary histories of recent years and Rawnsley certainly kept up the high standards of that book with this chronicle of the decline and fall of New Labour. His writing is ultra readable, his knowledge of politics and the world of Westminster is second to none and his sources are numerous and impeccable. This book, with its revelation of Gordon Brown’s alleged bullying dominated the headlines for weeks at the start of the year but there is much more to it than that. The heroes of the book –Alan Milburn and Tony Blair, amongst others are as clear as the villains – Gordon Brown and the Brownite coterie, including Ed Milband. This is contemporary ‘journalistic history’ as it should be and should be read by anybody with an interest in modern British politics.
5. The British General Election of 2010 by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh
This book is part of a series that goes back to 1945. But the general election of 2010 was no ordinary election. Some of the books about previous elections had seemed excessively academic and didn’t necessarily capture the drama and twists and turns that go with British election campaigns. This book, though, is indispensable. The authors had access to all of the major campaigns and the major players during the campaign and use it to brilliantly chronicle the unpredictable rollercoaster that was this year’s election. This is a must read for anybody interested in what really happened back in May and followers of all political parties should be reading this to work out what went right and what went wrong for their party in the Spring.
Bubbling Under. Close To The Top Five…
Tony Blair’s compelling biography was one of the best reads of the year. A Journey, written as Blair speaks, breaks the mould of political autobiographies. Blair, three years after leaving the scene remains deeply relevant – hugely important to both the coalition (the coalition contains a large number of devotees to Blair’s domestic reforms) and the Labour Party (with Ed Miliband seemingly determined to ignore the lessons of Labour’s most successful ever leader). A Journey is the autobiography of a man who remains as relevant as ever.
Two newly elected Tory MPs have produced books of genuine interest this year. ‘What does the Big Society mean’ is a question that many, including we at Platform 10 and even those esteemed scholars at the Oxford English Dictionary. Jesse Norman goes closer than pretty much anybody else in explaining what the Big Society is. Jesse Norman argues that the Big Society will redefine British politics and the book in which he makes this case is well worth a read. Nick Boles caused quite a stir when his, ‘Which Way’s Up’ was published – largely because he floated the idea of an electoral pact between the coalition partners. The book overall is a cracking read though – setting out how the coalition has the potential to transform Britain for the better.
Whilst Roy Hattersley doesn’t come close to matching John Grigg’s four volume biography of the great man, his biography of Lloyd-George is well worth a read. Lloyd George – The Great Outsider is as good a one volume biography as you will find of one of the greatest politicians in modern history, with Hattersley adding a politician’s understanding of DLG (intriguingly Hattersley says the idea was initially suggested by Roy Jenkins, who disliked Lloyd George so much that he couldn’t even envisage writing a biography of him).
Whilst not about UK politics, the brilliant ‘Race Of A Lifetime’ cannot go without a mention in the list of the year’s best political books. It offers an insider’s account to one of the most remarkable Presidential elections of the post war period. A thoroughly compelling read.